Thursday, 16 June 2016

"A Warm Home ... No Bombs Here." A refugee family's escape from ISIS to UK by Tess Berry-Hart

They waded into the water at midnight, Amajgar tells me, from the sandy beach in Turkey. He and his tiny wife held their three children – aged between three and seven –  on their shoulders, walking step by step into the cold water in the pitch dark. Around them other shadows moved in the water, following the same path to the black horizon. Forty feet out from the sloping beach they stood in the swirling chest-high tide until the smuggler boat arrived. They had made the attempt six times before, but a few times the Turkish police had interceded, and others the smuggler boat, alerted to trouble, had not arrived, leaving them waiting freezing and uncertain for hours. This time they had been lucky.

“How did you keep them quiet?” I asked, amazed.

“I promised them a new bicycle each if they were quiet,” Amajgar said. “I said if we managed to reach the UK that the first thing I would do is buy them a new bicycle. They never made a sound.”

We’re sitting in a small bedsit in Wolverhampton, and Amajgar’s wife fusses around us – bringing us trays of popcorn, home-baked bread chapattis and honey. Amajgar shows me pictures on his mobile phone while his children sit on my shoulders and bounce excitedly. My neck is beginning to ache.

“It took us five months,” says Amajgar reflectively. “Four weeks to manage to leave Turkey, two 
weeks to cross to France, and another three months to cross to the UK.”

As a sixteen year old boy, Amajgar had made the journey before. During the first Iraq war, he, his brothers and some friends, escaped to the UK and, as unaccompanied minors, were put into care and brought up in the north of England. Unlike many of the Afghan boys given conditional asylum, he was not sent back to Iraq when he was 18. Instead, he returned home of his own volition in his twenties, married his wife and his three children soon followed. 

Amajgar built a good living and used his fluent English acquired in growing up in the UK to good effect. But when Daesh with their black banners rolled into their city in central Iraq in summer 2015, it wasn't safe to walk the streets. Worse, word started to spread about his British connections and rumours started that he was a spy. Concerned, his father gave him a phone and told him to escape that very evening. Amajgar took his wife and children and got into a taxi bound for Turkey. Once through the border a couple of days later, he rang his father, who told him that a Daesh family were already installed and living in their old home.

So it happened that, fifteen years later, Amjgar was re-tracing the same route to the UK, but this time bringing his children with him.

They travelled through Macedonia and by train through Hungary without incident – at that time, the border controls worked in their favour as EU states gave up trying to halt the flow of arrivals. Once in Calais though, they took another two months staying in a freezing, dripping tent, during the worst time of the camp conditions, constantly subjected to tear gas and the threat of violence from police, before Amajgar successfully contacted a smuggler who arranged passage across the Channel in the back of a refrigerated lorry.

 “It was a fridge lorry,” remembers Amajgar. “But it was empty as the food was finished, so they had switched off the ice. But what I didn’t realise was that the lorry was airtight.”

The bread tastes dry in my mouth, and I glance over at his children, one lying sprawled on the sofa, the other two watching Peppa Pig on his mobile phone. 

Their lorry successfully crossed the Channel, but as it reached the other side, the air had become hot and they were struggling to breathe. His youngest daughter, not yet three, was experiencing an asthma attack. Amajgar banged on the side of the lorry to alert the driver. Lorry drivers, who will get fined if they are discovered illegally transporting people into the country, usually stop and let the occupants escape into the countryside. But this one did not stop, as the frightened driver picked up speed. With minutes left from disaster, Amajgar used a small hammer in his bag to beat at the door until it buckled, allowing enough air to escape into the cabin to relieve them. Through the aperture he could see the motorway signs. He used his mobile phone to call the police, who finally flagged the driver down.

“But we were lucky,” says Amajgar, looking around the sparsely-furnished flat. “We are here now, in this lovely home. It is warm, very very warm.” He smiles. “No bombs here.”

His oldest child has just got a place in school, and is still wearing the blue school uniform from earlier in the day. She yawns and reads a magazine. She’s just turned eight now, and her English is almost fluent. Back in Iraq, Daesh would not have let her go to school. The youngest child, now three, bounces excitedly on my knee, holding out her hands. She breathlessly chants a rhyme.

“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man! Back me a cake as fast as you can!”

“How do you like the UK?” I ask them.. They smile brilliantly back at me. "I like UK!" they trill happily. "UK! UK!!"

How can they be so calm? The smuggler boat, the terrifying air-tight lorry, all these are as much part of their upbringing as children's cartoons. One of them stands on my shoulders, and dive-bombs onto the old sofa with an excited shriek. 

"But I kept my promise, you know," Amajgar says. 

"Pardon?" I ask. 

Amajgar grins, and points to a corner of the room. Behind the sofa, next to the sleeping bags where the adults sleep at night, are three brand new bicycles.




Mystica said...

A heart warming story but I wonder how the future will be for them in the UK.

Lynne Benton said...

An inspiring story, Tess - hope they will be allowed to stay here.

Penny Dolan said...

What strength he and his family must have to survive a journey like this, Tess.

Nick Green said...

The people with the daring, resourcefulness and strength of resolve to escape a murderous regime and make it against all the odds across the seas to the UK are exactly the sort of people we want working here. Thanks for posting - amazing story.